George Burns used to tell the story of John Barrymore flagging a taxi in Manhattan. The cabbie says, “Mister Barrymore, it is an honor to have you as a passenger. Tell me, vot brings you to town?”
“I am here to perform Shakespeare’s King Lear on Broadway.”
“Oy, King Lear, a vonderful play. I have seen it performed many times in the Yiddish theater by Leo Adler and other great actors. Vot do you tink, Mister Barrymore, will it go in English?”
This story helped me understand the disconnect between Obama and his critics on Iran. They say he has not been sufficiently firm. His tone has been conciliatory, lukewarm, vacillating. He has not stood up for the downtrodden. He has not remonstrated on behalf of the demonstrators. His response to these charges? He dismisses them: on the contrary, he has been rock-solid. So which is it, who is right? The answer is simple. He is being stern and unyielding, except there is no one to translate his remarks into English.
His native language is the one which he uses in extremis. It is simple human nature in time of stress to retreat into one’s comfort zone. For Barack Obama, the patois he retreats into is Professorish.
PRACTITIONERS OF THIS JARGON speak more in gums than in tongues. They don’t tackle subjects, they skirt them. They don’t address issues, they only leave a zip code. They don’t confront matters, preferring to concentrate on background. They chew things over too thoroughly to spit out something solid. No machismo charisma for them, real men eat cliché.
Our inability to provide the translation is what will ultimately prove the undoing of Obama. His plan to approach the Muslim “world” with a new directness has instantly disintegrated in the face of the first episode of As The Muslim World Turns. Once a few guys named Mahmoud split up into opposing camps, the Obama bluster turns into fluster. His visit as a Cairo proctor failed to effect an adjustment. Now all he can do is play King-Tut-tut with graveness of demeanor.
Now he has ramped up his tone somewhat, the press (who are there to cover him) say, even “dramatically” according to AP. They quote his declaration of being outraged and appalled. This narrowly misses the classic “shocked and appalled,” which has generated more comedy skits than wiener schnitzel. Well, it is a relief to hear our President voice his outrage, even in a tone of voice generally reserved for telling the waitress at the diner “I’ll have the pancakes.” I guess it is hard to be El Lobo in the same breath as El Globo.
Which is not to say measured tones do not convey anything. For example, the President assured the folks in the Iranian street they are on the right side of history, provided they are aiming for the right goals for the right reasons at the right time in the right way. Beware the IDs of marchers, some soothsayer must have told him, right before the Senators knifed him in the back. You say equilibrium, I say equivocation, we’re both on the same page.
What does this bode? If the pen is mightier than the sword, perhaps this is the beginning of unilateral disarmament. No more nuclear stockpile of words which explode into the microphone or onto the page. No more machine-gun delivery of high-powered rhetoric. No more going for the jugular. No more hitting below the belt. No more striking while the iron is hot.
It is time for a new world order, says Russia, and she may well be right. The next leader who can issue an order will get to run the show. Just as nature abhors a vacuum cleaner, it loves a pressure cleaner. The world is so constructed that being toothless is ultimately being truthless. A little more of this Professorish and the A students will all be asleep while the manipulators cheat off their test papers.
Another Burns story, then, about Barrymore. He and Katharine Hepburn were teamed up in a movie and their relationship quickly degenerated into a nasty feud. At the end of the production, Miss Hepburn shouted at Barrymore: “I will never again act with you in a film.” To which the great Thespian replied: “You never have.” If Barack Obama claims he has shown leadership on Iran, we know just how to reply.